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Legislative Council elections 2016

More candidates, less competition in Hong Kong’s legislative election

Alice Wu says voters can hardly make informed choices while being bombarded by the chaotic shouting matches that pass for campaigning

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 August, 2016, 11:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 29 August, 2016, 1:35pm

While many Americans are lamenting their lack of choice in their November presidential election, Hongkongers – including some candidates themselves – are worried about having too many competitors.

This is most apparent in the beyond-disappointing media debates. Local political scientist Dr Ma Ngok has called watching the televised debates a form of “torture”. One TV station gave the New Territories East constituency about three hours of airtime. With 22 lists of candidates, each candidate had less than eight minutes to talk.

There was certainly no marketplace of ideas on display, at least not Oliver Wendell Holme’s notion of it. Instead, the debates have turned out to be mind-numbing shouting matches. Eight minutes yields nothing of real substance or importance. The sheer number of contestants has made it impossible for any to get their messages across without being interrupted, sidetracked, attacked or talked over. It is no wonder they resorted to the simple tactic of attacking opponents, which is, in essence, burning their rivals’ time and, as a result, wasting viewers’ time.

New Territories East proves to be election battleground for youth vote

The media is an essential tool for voter engagement, but what we have seen so far hardly facilitates an encouraging environment for people to do their civic duty. If anything, it has increased voter frustration. With more candidates, the electorate theoretically has more choices. But in the absence of information that matters, the elections are arguably less – not more – competitive.

The ideal voter is a conscientious one. We would expect them to take their civic duty seriously, putting aside their selfish interests to vote for candidates they believe are the best for the greater good. It is a sophisticated process, and it requires that voters learn as much as they can about the options, and evaluate how each candidate can meet their criteria. At the end of the day, it is this belief – in the responsible voter – on which we base our hope in democracy.

Democracy is about choice. We certainly have a lot of choices this year. But in order for democracy to work, we have to have faith that voters, in the aggregate, will make better choices. Decades of social psychology research has yet to confirm the premise of the wisdom of crowds – that aggregate decision-making may be more reliable than individual decision-making. But it is generally accepted that, if information is widely shared, the group has a better shot at doing better.

Instead of giving voters what is needed to help them make informed decisions, our political system has given them chaotic wet-market shouting matches.

Neither free mailing of candidates’ promotional material nor extending the campaign period to, say, 50 days would help. Voters just don’t have the necessary information nor the time to do the calculus; they are forced to base their choice on impressions.

Organised political groups have an advantage because they have had the time and resources to establish and cultivate voter contact and will be mobilising their voter base when polling day arrives. Fresh faces are disadvantaged.

We must ask ourselves whether all these choices really make our elections more “democratic”. As the greatest point of contention that led to Occupy Central and the ultimate failure of the constitutional reform proposal hinged on the notion that a nomination committee would rob people of genuine choice, and therefore genuine democracy, we must now consider this: if more candidates means more democracy, how much quality are we willing to sacrifice for quantity?

Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA